Rate and processes of river network rearrangement during incipient faulting: The case of the cahabó n river, Guatemala

Gilles Brocard, Jane Willenbring, Barbara Suski, Philippe Audra, Christine Authemayou, Beatriz Cosenza-Muralles, Sergio Morá n-Ical, François Demory, Pierre Rochette, Torsten Vennemann, Klaus Holliger, Christian Teyssier

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25 Scopus citations


Deeply incised river networks are generally regarded as robust features that are not easily modified by erosion or tectonics. Although the reorganization of deeply incised drainage systems has been documented, the corresponding importance with regard to the overall landscape evolution of mountain ranges and the factors that permit such reorganizations are poorly understood. To address this problem, we have explored the rapid drainage reorganization that affected the Cahabón River in Guatemala during the Quaternary. Sediment-provenance analysis, field mapping, and electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) imaging are used to reconstruct the geometry of the valley before the river was captured. Dating of the abandoned valley sediments by the 10Be-26Al burial method and geomagnetic polarity analysis allow us to determine the age of the capture events and then to quantify several processes, such as the rate of tectonic deformation of the paleovalley, the rate of propagation of post-capture drainage reversal, and the rate at which canyons that formed at the capture sites have propagated along the paleovalley. Transtensional faulting started 1 to 3 million years ago, produced ground tilting and ground faulting along the Cahabón River, and thus generated differential uplift rate of 0.3 · 0.1 up to 0.7 ·0.4 mm · y -1 along the river's course. The river responded to faulting by incising the areas of relative uplift and depositing a few tens of meters of sediment above the areas of relative subsidence. Then, the river experienced two captures and one avulsion between 700 ky and 100 ky. The captures breached high-standing ridges that separate the Cahabón River from its captors. Captures occurred at specific points where ridges are made permeable by fault damage zones and/or soluble rocks. Groundwater flow from the Cahabón River down to its captors likely increased the erosive power of the captors thus promoting focused erosion of the ridges. Valley-fill formation and capture occurred in close temporal succession, suggesting a genetic link between the two. We suggest that the aquifers accumulated within the valley-fills, increased the head along the subterraneous system connecting the Cahabón River to its captors, and promoted their development. Upon capture, the breached valley experienced widespread drainage reversal toward the capture sites. We attribute the generalized reversal to combined effects of groundwater sapping in the valley-fill, axial drainage obstruction by lateral fans, and tectonic tilting. Drainage reversal increased the size of the captured areas by a factor of 4 to 6. At the capture sites, 500 m deep canyons have been incised into the bedrock and are propagating upstream at a rate of 3 to 11 mm · y -1 while deepening at a rate of 0.7 to 1.5 mm · y -1. At this rate, 1 to 2 million years will be necessary for headward erosion to completely erase the topographic expression of the paleovalley. It is concluded that the rapid reorganization of this drainage system was made possible by the way the river adjusted to the new tectonic strain field, which involved transient sedimentation along the river's course. If the river had escaped its early reorganization and had been given the time necessary to reach a new dynamic equilibrium, then the transient conditions that promoted capture would have vanished and its vulnerability to capture would have been strongly reduced.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)449-507
Number of pages59
JournalAmerican Journal of Science
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2012


  • 26Al-10Be burial dating
  • Drainage reorganization
  • Drainage reversal
  • Electrical resistivity
  • Groundwater sapping
  • Knickpoint propagation
  • Paleovalley
  • River capture
  • Tectonic defeat
  • Tomography


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